Rewatching the UK vs. UMASS 1996 Final Four

  • Kentucky has its first chance to press after a score. Tony Delk and Antoine Walker trap in the middle of the floor at the foul line — who needs to wait for a good spot? — and Delk leaps up like a special-teamer trying to block a PAT to deflect the ball in the air. Walker grabs it, dishes it behind-the-back, and Delk gets an and-one layup. I’m in love with this defense.
  • First player off the bench: Mark Pope, who looks instantly out of place but will prove me wrong before the end.
  • UMass guard Edgar Padilla picks up a foul, and the subsequent zoom-in reveals that he’s wearing not only a t-shirt underneath, but a t-shirt with a design on it. That would be double uncool today, I think.
  • The broadcast cuts to a Syracuse team fresh off a semi-final win. Five of the six guys rocking headphones as they watch a Final Four game. Walkmans are the 1996 Dre Beats. At that time, Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” was bursting to the top of the charts. It’s like having your team motto be “Refuse to Lose” on a day when you don’t win.
  • Jeff Sheppard gets about 24 seconds of playing time in the first half before sitting down. Don’t worry, Jeff. Your time will come. (UPDATE: Sooner than expected. I honestly didn’t think Sheppard did anything except warm the bench until 1998. I blame my six-year-old memory.)
  • UK gets its first lead of the game at 19-18.
  • “I don’t know if there’s any young coach who has built his program (more) from where it started to where it is now.” – color commentator Billy Packer on UMass coach John Calipari. The same could be said of the opening years at both Memphis and Kentucky, as well.
  • “You thinking Rick Pitino had kept that $5,000 in his pocket? … He’s the guy John really owes his job to.” – Packer again. The Calipari/Pitino story has evolved in the craziest way over the years, especially when you consider what happens at the end of this game: the coaches hug it out, leading play-by-play Jim Nantz to call it a great moment “for the two men who are like brothers.”
  • Announcers keep fawning over Walker’s ability to pass as a 6-foot-8 guy (Walker finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists). He seems like the beginning of the new type of forward, versatile and athletic enough to play an inside-out game. Walter McCarty McCarty (8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists), too; the first two possessions of the entire game, McCarty defended Marcus Camby in the paint and then launched a three-pointer on the other end. Oh, and freshman Ron Mercer (9 points in 16 minutes), who the announcers say was the co-No. 1 high school player alongside Kevin Garnett. Mercer chose UK over Tennessee because he didn’t want to “carry the load” his freshman year. I wonder if that mindset would have still been the same in today’s era.
  • Pan to press row. So weird to not see everyone on laptops. Instead, they studiously clutch pencils and stare intently at the actions on the court in front of them.
  • What an odd court (read: 90s) this game is being played on. Carolina-blue sidelines, yellow in the lane, and red trim for lines and NCAA logo filling.
  • UK was firing from mid-first half through the beginning of the second half, building a 15-point lead. And with that press, even Pitino admitted afterward he didn’t expect them to make a legitimate charge at coming back. Instead, UMass rallies. Down 11 with 15:40 to go, Calipari walks out beyond half court following a timeout and gives a butt slap to all five guys coming in. Hard butt slaps. I’m pretty sure I saw Camby clench.
  • During the comeback, though, a rather rough sequence for UMass. Calipari calls a 20-second timeout, even though the next dead ball was going to be the under-12 TV timeout anyway. Compounding matters, UMass doesn’t have a 20-second timeout left, so he has to blow a full timeout. Then, on the inbounds play, UMass gets called for a 5-second violation. Twitter would have exploded if it existed.
  • Still, UMass fights to within three points. With the lead dwindling, it looked like UK’s collapse was imminent. This was, after all, before they would prove themselves to be what we know them to be over the next three years. “I thought they might panic,” little laugh, points to the referee and says “good job.” I doubt he meant it. Still, it’s nice to see where Calipari’s coaching style roots come from. The wild gesticulating, the hand gestures made with both hands in mirror images, the faces that are awesome to look at when frozen in time — it’s all the same.
  • Ballgame. UK 81, UMass 74. Tony Delk paces the way for UK with 20 points, even as he fought cramps in the second half. Marcus Camby had 25 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocks for the other side, but UK’s incessant double-teaming limited him from taking over the game.

Not had enough reliving of the Final Four victory? Watch it all here.

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